This week started off with the very first edition of International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) on the 28th of September. In recognition of the significance of access to information the day was proclaimed at the 74th UN General Assembly in 2019 (It was originally proclaimed at the UNESCO General Conference in 2015). IDUAI 2020 is focusing on the right to information in times of crisis and also on the advantage of having constitutional, statutory guarantees for public access to information through and beyond the Covid 19 crisis. This was discussed on the opening webinar IDUAI 2020 High level Panel: Saving Lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope.
The right to information is key in development and it has an impact on human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, press freedom, equality and citizens daily life. This will be my point of departure for my series of blog posts. My first entry will build on the webinar mentioned above. It was along session and I will reflect on some of the issues and solutions that were brought up during this initial conversation during IDUAI 2020.
In a nutshell this initial webinar focused on two things; Access to information and the urge to implement laws to enable that and also the importance of openness in parliaments to meet requirements from the public. And the other thing discussed was how to safeguard accurate and reliable information in a crisis and at the same time fight misinformation and even malicious disinformation. The overall approach was in the light of a the Covid 19 crisis, but much said is by all means applicable in the strive for a sustainable development in general, without a deadly virus roaming the planet.
IDUAI High-Level Panel webinar.
Legal framework and openness
UNESCO has for a long time acknowledged access to information as a human right and Xing Qu (Deputy Director-General of UNESCO) emphasized on their continuous work to encourage governments to adapt to right to information legislations (where such laws don’t exist). In the light of this pandemic it is not only a matter of guiding the public in health matters and what precautions to take, but also to work with transparency and the oversight role to ensure the citizens that public funds are used wisely in the Covid 19 response.
Regarding the issue of openness María Barón (Steering Committee Co-Chair at OGP – Open Government Partnership) recognized 4 challenges for parliaments, especially during this Covid 19 pandemic.
Adapt to technology work
Parliaments must adapt to working online since they are not being able to meet in person and to keep providing other important information to the public and not using this pandemic as an excuse not to. When debates etc are streamed the public can participate in a way but there has been a backlash in how the public can have an active participation. And the oversight role must be there to for example track Covid 19 response packages.
Sylvie Briand (Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Department, WHO) described the current situation as an infodemic. We have seen an overflow of information about Covid-19 in traditional news media and social media and it can be a difficult task for people to difference useful from harmful information. To manage such a state there are three important aspects.
- Provide the right information at the right time and in the right format
- Debunk myths and to correct misinformation
- Amplify correct information through trusted networks
The first point emphasizes on the importance of listening to the community and understand their concerns and then provide information to make people make healthy choices. For example, WHO worked early in the pandemic with faith-based organizations to co-develop guidance for managing safe religious gatherings. Regarding the second point WHO is partnering with fact-checker organizations to trace misinformation. And thirdly it is about building wide-ranging partnerships across, not only the UN, but many actors in society, because people have different trusted networks that they turn to.
Measures on Covid-19 taken by Twitter
Twitter at its core is about public conversations and the quality needs to be protected. Sinéad McSweeney (Vice-President Public Policy EMEA and Managing Director Twitter Ireland) spoke of the actions taken by Twitter. One is the dedicated search prompt feature which means that when someone search for covid-19 (with a number of specific keywords, even common misspellings) at the very top of the search list accurate and reliable content is being found. This is a collaboration with WHO and also the national public health agencies where this search prompter has been implemented. To this date it is available in 80 countries worldwide and in 29 languages. So far over 160 million people have visited Covid-19 curated pages over 2 billion times.
An additional action taken is the zero tolerance on any artificial amplification of public health misinformation. In other words, they are stepping up on making sure that accounts are authentic. So far Twitter has challenged over 4.5 million accounts making sure they are authentic accounts that are engaging in the conversations.
Accountability, human rights, press freedom…that's what #AccessToInfo's about & that's why it matters to all of us.
Today is #AccessToInfoDay!
— UNESCO (@UNESCO) September 28, 2020
Access to information is crucial in building a democratic society and needs to be included in the legal framework. But over a third of the countries in the world still haven’t passed access to information laws. This should also include the acceptance of a diverse and free media, the protection of journalists and the will and means to apply transparency to fight corruption. This all sounds very good and the way forward – but one can’t help thinking about the technical side of things, especially in developing countries. Even if you have the law it might be a case of bad digital infrastructure, incapacity of record keeping and lack of or poor systems and platforms to actually putting the information out there. And also, being able to ensure that parliaments have the capacity of being open and having a dialogue with the public and responding to requests. Even if laws are the first step, they will become somewhat toothless if they are not implemented fully and being reviewed. And it is inevitable not to mention the digital divide and the fact that there are people who do not have access to the internet for different reasons.
This rapidly spreading of, not only the virus, but also the enormous wave of information it becomes clear the right to access of information is also very much an issue of the right to accurate information. And how important it is to safeguard this issue. Big players like Twitter have the financial muscles to contribute to this action and as they say “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Partnership and collaborations on local, national and global levels seems to be absolute key in the way forward in both identifying challenges of access to information and the case of misinformation and to find the solutions. Solutions that will rely heavily on technology (ICT) and research. But it is not only partnerships between stakeholders within the UN system, civil society, media, researchers, academia, technology and business sectors and faith leaders that is the answer – there lies a big portion of responsibility on the individual citizens in a society. We need to realize that we are playing an important role to battle this pandemic. Not just by washing our hands, keeping social distancing and taking other safety precautions, but we also need to practice healthy behaviour when it comes to information and communication. We need to be aware of the fact that we might unintentionally contribute to the spread of misinformation if we are not practising critical thinking and develop skills on how to address pieces of information in a responsible way. Media and digital literacy on an individual level are important aspects that goes beyond the current situation of a pandemic.
In my next post I will give an example on how you as a citizen can contribute to the fight against spreading misinformation in this time of Covid 19 crisis – and help cure this infodemic!